Ageism in Retreat: Robert Joseph Taylor

Robert Joseph Taylor is a professor of social work at the University of Michigan. He is also associated with the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research, which is based on the campuses of the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. He has published extensively on the informal social support networks of adult and elderly African Americans. He has also researched the role of religion in the lives of older black and white Americans. He has edited or co-edited two books, Family Life in Black America (1997) and Aging in Black America (1993). He is the lead author of the book, Religion in the Lives of African Americans: Social, Psychological, and Health Perspectives (2004) with Linda Chatters and Jeff Levin. 

REFLECTIONS: Are Americans rethinking their attitudes toward aging?

ROBERT TAYLOR: The evidence is mixed. For decades Medicare was considered a sacred program that had support from all sides, but now we’re seeing attacks on it. This suggests that the “contract” between generations might be changing. That contract has worked very well up to now. Looking at the condition of elderly Americans since 1955, we’ve seen dramatic increases in their quality of life and quality of health. That has happened because of increased access to care, and Medicare made that possible.

   There are other benefits. Grandchildren are now more likely to know their grandparents, who are living longer, and grandparents are more likely to be involved in the grandchildren’s lives. Grandparents are providing childcare and other help to single moms in the family who might not otherwise afford it. American society now is producing fewer children but more interaction between grandparents and the families.

REFLECTIONS: Does the recent criticism of Medicare/Medicaid stem mostly from fiscal worries or from philosophical opposition to it?

TAYLOR: I think it’s mostly ideological. Until this past year, we weren’t hearing phrases like “makers and takers” and other divisive slogans. A more common sentiment was, “If we all just give a little, we’ll all benefit.” Yes, there are holes in the Medicare system; the key is deciding how to control costs. But it’s still possible to insure people. I don’t think the sense of obligation to older people has eroded. There’s still basic trust in the contract.

REFLECTIONS: Your research includes the role of social support networks in African American life. What are some of your findings?

TAYLOR: Social support networks include family, friends, congregations, sometimes co-workers. These provide emotional support, companionship, emergency help, assisted-living support, transportation, yard work, money. Where black communities differ from white communities is in the role of the family. African Americans are more likely to rely on help exclusively from extended family. 

   Another difference is: older black Americans are more likely to remain members of a church and go to church more frequently. We know that religious involvement is beneficial in protecting against depression, in two ways. Staying in touch with others in the congregation – talking to other people – helps prevent a person from becoming isolated and depressed. And when times are bad, other church members pitch in and help a person out materially or emotionally.

REFLECTIONS: Have African American religious loyalties been altered through these recent decades of cultural turbulence? 

TAYLOR: Older African Americans tend to be more religious than younger persons. This has been a consistent finding since 1970 – high rates of worship attendance, membership, activity at church. There’s usually a drop-off in active participation after about age 72, but interest does not decline. Older people still read religious materials, tune in to religious programming. Prayer remains important. None of this is surprising. Churches in the black community have always been a vital part of the culture. Historically it’s the only institution blacks totally controlled in this country.

REFLECTIONS: Are new models of retirement evolving?

TAYLOR: Let’s keep in mind that retirement is a middle-class idea. I think we take that for granted. Poor people have a different experience. You don’t retire unless you’ve had a career. If you’re a parking lot attendant or a day laborer, what moves you out of the work force is typically illness, not retirement. In such jobs, employers are not likely to pay for Social Security or other benefits. To paraphrase the late gerontologist Jackie Jackson: though many people retire out of the labor force, other people die out of the labor force.

REFLECTIONS: The expanding demographic of aging baby boomers is upon us. Is society ready?

TAYLOR: In some ways society is not ready, but it is evolving in positive ways. People are living healthier lives, exercising more, smoking less. I think ageism is in retreat. There aren’t as many elderly-bashing jokes. They are not stigmatized as much as we saw in previous decades. Aging has become more productive. People are being intentional and active in retirement, taking new jobs or working in non-profits. Despite our sometimes nasty political discourse, I’m optimistic about our future.